Some people believe you should write an outline of every scene before you begin. Others believe you should flow with the tale as it happens. I think that plot is important enough to deserve conscious thought – but I also believe that almost anything can be fixed by editing. And if you’re writing your first novel (or any novel), too much thought will kill you*.
There are only three decisions you actually need to make before you start.
1. If you’re writing for children or young adults, your main character needs to be a couple of years older than your target audience – and they need to stay roughly that age throughout the book. So your ten-year old won’t be driving a car, and your sixteen-year old won’t be getting married. Not if you want to one day sell the book. You also need to keep your themes relevent to the age group – so redemption isn’t a good theme for a ten-year old, and dealing with old age isn’t a go either.
2. If you’re writing for children or young adults, your length is relatively restricted – Ages 9-14 tend to read books around 30,000 words, and young adults read books around 60,000 words. More importantly, those are the lengths publishers buy. Give or take 5000 words, so don’t worry TOO much. Here’s a great post on word length by genre (including YA and children): http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html
3. You’ll need to choose if you’re writing in first person (“I saw the duck. . .”) or third person (“She saw the duck. . .”). You probably do it automatically one way or the other. First person is much better for getting into the main character’s voice and head (or the narrator’s head, if he/she is a different person**), and for preserving a mystery (if the narrator doesn’t know something, neither does the reader – but it’s cheating to make the narrator not tell the reader what they know). Third person is less personal, but more flexible.
And that’s all you really need! Everything else can be fixed in editing.
But it’s useful to keep basic story structure in mind.
Basic Story Structure: An interesting character has a serious problem/goal and attempts to overcome it. It gets worse despite their efforts, and finally there is a crucial action-packed moment in the book when all is decided (for better or worse).
Fantasy example: An interesting character (Harry Potter, an orphan with magic powers) has a serious problem (defeating Voldemort, who killed his parents) and after many fights and more deaths and pain. . . he does.
Romance example: An interesting character (a charmingly quirky Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan or similar) is lonely, and meets a guy (probably Hugh Grant). Her serious goal is to get the guy (it’s serious because it changes their lives). After feeling her loneliness more keenly than ever and having at least one major fight or embarrassment, the pair get together.
In order to get words on paper (that’s the hard part about first drafts), I recommend you treat each chapter as a short story that is relevant to the main plot (ditto your sub-plots, but you can always put them in later).
For example, if your main goal is to destroy an evil ring, some of your chapters could involve walking across a field and meeting more characters, running away from evil wraiths that want the ring, pausing to get advice from Cate Blanchett, and fighting a Balrog while taking a short cut. Each one of these has its own tension (will the farmer/wraiths/Balrog get them? Is the elf also evil/turned evil because of the ring?) and resolution (one step closer to the goal – but the main characters have a more complex or vulnerable situation to go on with, eg their powerful guide is dead or we have a greater understanding of the ring’s evil).
Here’s a funnier version of how to write a novel:
And since it’s Steampunk Earth Day later this month, here’s a pretty steampunk picture for you (from friedpost.com):
*Er. . . your novel. Whatever.
**Not recommended for your first book. Why makes things harder for yourself? Don’t challenge the establishment until AFTER you’ve proved you can write within the rules (say, after you’ve sold your first book to a major publisher).